Category Archives: Visualizing Illness

What can illness look like?

Angels & Monsters: A child’s eye view of cancer

Godzilla stands next to a purple hospital, breathing out engulfing flames of fire. He is burning out cancer.

This drawing was one of many to inspire art therapist Lisa Murray to share the work of children with cancer. Photographer Billy Howard is also dedicated to these children, capturing their personalities through a camera lens. Together, Murray and Howard set out to bridge their representations of these children. Murray let children illustrate what it feels like to have cancer through the medium of their choice, then wrote out their explanations. Howard photographed each child individually, honoring their personal journeys with cancer.

Angels & MonstersGodzilla vs. Cancer was an art gallery exhibition in 1994, sharing the illustrations, explanations, and photographs of 25 children with a larger audience outside the Pediatric Oncology ward. Eight years later in 2002, 17 of the children had survived. These creations along with biographies and a list of resources were compiled to create the book Angels & Monsters: A child’s eye view of cancer.

Cancer brings out fear: tears, pain, sickness, confusion, isolation, and band-aids. But it also brings out friendships, faith, perspective, and love. While each artistic piece offers insight into each child’s perspective, black and white photographs showcase each child’s self. On a swing, with a superhero cape, by a window, curled in a bed. Each work of art and the rationale behind it is compelling, each photograph and each child beautiful.

The authors reflect honestly with simple yet profound understandings of these children and their journeys. I loved the phrase that Jeff Foxworthy uses in the forward to describe these children: “old souls in little bodies” (viii). These individuals exhibit the precision of language as they carve out childhood cancer. They invite us to into “a special world. No artifice exists there. The human spirit holds sway with complete honesty and great dignity” (6).

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Filed under Chronicling Childhood Cancer: Illuminating the Illness Experience through Narrative, Literary Narratives, Visualizing Illness

Bioartography: Art Inherent in Science

Microscopic slides = masterpieces.

Bioartography is a joint venture by scientists and artists across the University of Michigan campus. This program identifies the artistic nature of scientific studies and illuminates them through a microscopic lens. A panel of artists and scientists contribute their perspectives, and the profits of these sales fund scientific research. Some of these creations have even been adapted and pieced together as quilts by the Healing Quilts in Medicine program. By far, an art fair favorite.

Inspired by Bioartography, I created this collage.

A collection of tissue slides in the shape of a heart, although ironically not from the heart.

I <3 Histology

<kidney, mammary glands, liver,  prostate>

A collection of tissue slides in the shape of a heart, although ironically not of the heart.

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Filed under Visualizing Illness

Jessica Beels Design: The Dimensions of Disease

Disease exists in three-dimensional space. Sculptures allow our depictions of pathology to inhabit the world as such. With metal and broken shards of glass, Jessica Beels brings disease to life. From the microscopic HPV virus to blood clots and galaxies of neurons, Beels crafts the symbolic works of art with an understanding of their scientific significance.

These works were designed specifically for an exhibit called Pulse: Art and Medicine, “a multi media investigation of medicine as an inspiration for art, and the inherent artistry involved in the medical sciences.”

What I love about Beels’ creations is that they embody all aspects of this mission. The multiplicity of medium, incorporating  ordinary tools of art alongside the extraordinary. Understanding how medicine, the springy resilience of blood cells or the withering effects of Alzheimer’s on neurons, are influence  these creations. And, at the same time, how this art reflects the natural and unnatural of the human body.

It is the thought and care behind these works that empowers them. Beels outlines the flow of her ideas, inviting the viewer to understand the decisions she made in shaping each creation. She clearly respected this feat of stepping into the world of science and drawing upon art to explore. Beels seems to devote herself to each of these works, allowing each component to bring its scientific merit into art.

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Colonomic: Cancer, Pregnancy, and Comics

“You’ve got 3 options.

1. Have chemo now and risk damaging the baby

2. Abort the baby and start chemo after… I must make you aware that chemo might make you infertile

OR

3. Delay treatment until after it’s born.”

(Matilda Tristram, February Colonomic)

How does Matilda Tristram face these choices? With a black felt pen.

Colonomic is “an ongoing comic about it all.” As an 18-month pregnant woman, she was diagnosed with Stage IV Colon Cancer in February. With a passion for sketching and writing, Tristram has turned to comics as a means of communicating with loved ones about how she was doing.

The black and white nature of her comics gives them a sense of precision, and her concise use of language leaves a reader valuing the impact of each word.  The simplicity of her sketches sharpens them, and she distills each image to its core. Her authenticity and honesty is exposed by her unaltered writing and drawing, which preserves her presence within this work of art. Unsettled emotions of frustration surface, but so to does gratitude for the simple pleasures. Some moments are comical, others more tragic. 

The name Colonomic melds together the bodily organ with a form of art in a way that piques your interest, and exemplifies that these distinct realms may in fact be connected. This comic establishes an  incredible connection between the work of literature and art.

One thing I thought was interesting was that after watching Matilda’s story: A matter of life and death, the caption didn’t quite seem to fit.  The caption claims that “she has created a comic book that details the difficult decisions that came next: whether to undergo chemotherapy and whether to keep the baby” (Guardian). But Colonomic pushes against these decisions, drawing upon so many more of Matilda’s unique experiences.

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Filed under Literary Narratives, Visualizing Illness

Regina Holliday’s The Walking Gallery: Connecting the Dots Between Policy and Patients

Sometimes the tendency to wear your heart on your sleeve, to openly express your emotions, can be suffocated by  the medical profession. But wearing your heart on your back is becoming increasingly appreciated.

The Walking Gallery is “the Gallery that walks. The Patients that wear our stories on our back” (Holliday).

Image courtesy of Ted Eytan under a Creative Commons license: BY-SA.

Image courtesy of Ted Eytan under a Creative Commons license: BY-SA.

It’s this revolutionary idea that art can provide a window into the patient experience, one that can be displayed by the clothes on a person’s back. This offers mobility to art, a method of transportation that escapes the confinements of wall hangings and pervades into inevitable lines of vision. This increased accessibility allows “patients,” as embodied by this artwork, to enter into places and discussions that they have never before been a part of. Now, patient experiences can be visible and  actively remembered in the decision spaces  that often influence but do not include patients.

Image courtesy of Ted Eytan under a Creative Commons license: BY-SA

Image courtesy of Ted Eytan under a Creative Commons license: BY-SA.

The work of Regina Holliday, the artist who brought this exhibit of sorts to life, is inspirational. She not only has a way with art, but also a way with language: her overwhelmingly powerful talk at Stanford incredibly moved me, and she has piqued my interest in exploring the place of art in medicine. Holliday is one of the first artists that I’ve come across in the field of patient advocacy, and her creations have gathered incredible force for this movement.

What I love about the Walking Gallery is that it takes a step forward to putting a story to the patient experience. These jackets and the images that they bear evoke emotions buried within medicine.  And The Walking Gallery is not limited to patients: physicians, policy makers, and others associated with health care all have stories to share. Despite the distinct roles in medicine, art overcomes these boundaries with brushstrokes and splashes of color. We can wear our experiences, the good and the bad and the in-between, the joys and sorrows, the triumphs and trials. Boldly.

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A Week of Art

Mid-July in Ann Arbor means heat, humidity and sun, with a splash of sporadic thunderstorms. But it also means Art Fair, 4 days of celebrating and supporting the work of artists from around the nation.

In honor of the Ann Arbor Art Fair, I will be posting daily this week about art as an illness narrative. I love to think about how the practice of medicine is both a science and an art, and I stumbled upon this interesting article called Medicine: Science or Art? which teases out this idea.

“Medicine is both an art and a science. Both are interdependent and inseparable, just like two sides of a coin. The importance of the art of medicine is because we have to deal with a human being, his or her body, mind and soul. To be a good medical practitioner, one has to become a good artist with sufficient scientific knowledge. Technology covered with the layer of art alone can bring relief to the sick” (S.C. Panda 2006).

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Filed under Miscellaneous Musings, Visualizing Illness

A Google Doodle of Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis

In honor of Franz Kafka’s 130th birthday today, Google chose to illustrate one of Kafka’s most canonical works: The Metamorphosis. This classic novella was one of the first illness narratives that I read, telling the symbolic tale of the salesman Gregor whose illness transforms him into a “monstrous verminous bug” (1).

It’s interesting what a different feel this image has. The drab colors reflect the simplistic tone in the book. But the sense of entrapment and isolation conveyed in Kafka’s work is inverted here by a mobile insect in control of his limbs. And the apple, a weapon that injures Gregor, becomes raised on the pedestal-like letter L. There is no sense of the pain and torment that Gregor experiences from the illness in the novella.

This doodle has me thinking about images and their effects on literature. Since I saw this image after reading the book, it was a bit unsettling for me. But if I had seen this image prior, perhaps I would have left the text with a different sentiment. I wonder how book covers of illness narratives may sway perceptions of illness.

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Filed under Miscellaneous Musings, Visualizing Illness